Can A Bad Sequel Ruin A Good Movie? Yes, Yes It Can

Next week, Todd Phillips’ War Dogs will be released in theaters most likely somewhere near your home. (It’s a movie we’ve seen and will write more about next week.) It’s Phillips’ first film since 2013’s The Hangover Part III – which now has me thinking a lot about The Hangover movies.

For the most part, I like Todd Phillips’ movies. (Even though the only time I ever interviewed Phillips, for 2010’s Due Date, we got off to a rocky start.) This is mostly because he has a career arc I find interesting: There’s a real growth as a comedic director in-between, say, Old School and Starsky & Hutch. After that, he made a comedic almost-masterpiece with 2009’s original The Hangover.

What a double-edged sword that turned out to be: On a $35 million budget, The Hangover grossed nearly half a billion dollars. Half a billion! There was no way to avoid sequels. And I’m sure Phillips became a rich human being by agreeing to direct two more Hangover movies. And because of those two sequels, we now think of The Hangover series as garbage. And then, after we think that, we then remind ourselves, “Oh wait, you know, the first one is still really funny.”

Can a bad sequel ruin the original film? Using a purely literal definition: no. But can a bad sequel ruin how a movie is perceived culturally? You bet. The Hangover movies are a perfect example. If, right now, only The Hangover existed, we’d still be hailing it in “the best comedies of the last 10 years” lists. Now, if you put that on a list, a person would have to defend his or her choice. It would probably start with the line, “Now, forget the sequels…”

Bad sequels don’t always ruin a movie. No one mentions The Sting and then says, “Yeah, but The Sting II, oof.” (The Sting II, released 10 years after the original, features zero returning actors from The Sting. It’s basically The Bourne Legacy of The Sting movies.) And no one discounts the first two The Godfather films because The Godfather Part III was a misfire. (I do love that we consider a film nominated for Best Picture a “misfire.”) And even the Star Wars prequels didn’t completely tarnish the Original Trilogy.

This has to do with the fact these sequels (or prequels) all happened far enough away from their original films that we don’t lump them together. These films are outliers. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was made almost 20 years after the previous Indiana Jones movie. The other three are far too cemented as “good” for a fourth one to come along and ruin the others’ cultural impact.

Even the recent bad Die Hard sequels can’t tarnish the original. Die Hard 2 is a perfectly serviceable sequel that certainly didn’t help, but it didn’t hurt. And most people enjoy Die Hard with a Vengeance. By the time the fourth movie came along, the prior three had their place.

The Rocky franchise is strange. Only one of the movies, Rocky 5, is truly bad. But its sequels did somehow change our outlook on the original film: It shifted from a critical darling that won Best Picture, to the first installment in a series of big muscle action movies. So, the sequels didn’t turn Rocky into something we don’t like, but they did change our perception.

It’s funny when people whine about “reboots ruining the originals.” That never happens. (I don’t mind people whining about reboots in general, but the idea that it ruins the original is dumb.) When someone, today, mentions Total Recall or RoboCop, we still think of the 1990 and 1987 versions, respectively. Even though the new versions came out in 2012 and 2014, they didn’t change or ruin anything. Even a hugely successful reboot, like Batman Begins, didn’t wipe the memories of Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman. Both films still have their place in culture.

Today, Police Academy is the granddaddy of “a movie with a lot of sequels we think are bad.” It’s a punchline. But let’s pretend something: Let’s pretend Police Academy came out in 1984 (well, it did), and that was it. There’s one Police Academy movie. How would we feel about Police Academy today? Have you watched the original lately? If you haven’t, it’s probably a little raunchier than you remember. (It’s rated R.) No raunchier than Caddyshack really, but I do wonder if we’d think about Police Academy the same way we do Caddyshack if it weren’t for movies like Police Academy 4: Citizens on Patrol and Police Academy: Mission to Moscow? (Speaking of Caddyshack, there’s another movie that benefited from its terrible sequel arriving eight years after the original.)

Want to read something crazy? (No? Okay, I wasn’t expecting that answer. I don’t really know what to do now. I suppose I’ll just print what I was going to anyway. This is really awkward.) Police Academy was the sixth highest-grossing film of 1984. Sixth! Right now, in 2016, the sixth highest grossing film is Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. (Sure, it underperformed based on its budget and expectations, but it still made a lot of money.) The films above Police Academy on that list are, in order: Beverly Hills Cop, Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Gremlins, and The Karate Kid. We have positive feelings toward all of those movies. And every single one of those movies had a sequel that’s at least serviceable.* Police Academy made more money than Footloose and Star Trek III: The Search for Spock!

*Okay, I assume you want to argue about Ghostbusters II. Personally, I’d a) qualify it as “serviceable.” It certainly didn’t damage the original. Or b), even if you want to say it’s “bad,” it still came five years after the original. That’s getting into “too late to change perceptions” territory. (If you want to argue about Gremlins 2, you have no soul.)

Honestly, without its sequels, I think we look back on Police Academy fondly. And I think Steve Guttenberg has an easier time shedding the ghost of Mahoney that seemed to haunt his career. (For an actor who obviously had aspirations higher than Police Academy, why he agreed to do four of these movies is beyond me. He did Cocoon with Ron Howard, then TWO MORE Police Academy movies. What?) I think, without the sequels, it would be looked at as a quintessential ‘80s comedy. Instead, it’s schlock.

And this has been the cultural fate of The Hangover: a movie everyone seemed to love, ruined by two terrible sequels. Like Police Academy, it’s now a punchline for bad sequels.

So, the lesson to all of this is: If you care about the legacy of your movie at all, c’mon, just make an at least serviceable sequel. There’s no stopping sequels, there’s too much money involved, at least make one that won’t make us forget why we liked the original in the first place.

Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.